Today’s home is more likely to have a media room where people can watch TV, listen to music, play games and occasionally watch a movie on the big screen (or even a white wall). Rooms like that demand a bright projector capable of competing with windows and ambient light. High output is the only way to deliver a decent image under these conditions. BenQ is breaking down price/performance barriers with its MU686 business projector. Its 3500-lumen brightness is more than a match for difficult rooms and it’ll only set you back $749.
BenQ MU686 DLP Projector
- Compact chassis with fixed lens
- Single-chip DLP with 3500-lumen output
- Bright mode tops 165 foot-Lamberts
- Fully-adjustable picture modes
- 3D support
- Wireless HDMI available
Today’s media rooms demand versatile displays and BenQ has covered nearly every base in that department. From dedicated home theater models to portables, it can provide a projector for nearly every imaginable environment.
Native aspect ratio:
1920 x 1200
Yes, frame-sequential, top/bottom, side-by-side
Anamorphic lens support:
Light Output (MFR):
2 x HDMI 1.4 w/MHL (1 wireless), 1 x VGA, 1 x composite, 1 x S-video
Speakers – 2 x 2w, 3.5mm in/out jacks
1 x RS-232
Rated lamp life:
3000hrs Normal, 4000hrs Economic, 6000hrs SmartEco, 7500 LampSave
5.1" H x 13" W x 9.7" D
1 year / 180 days lamp
BenQ, BenQ MU686 DLP Projector, DLP, DLP Projector, 3D Projector, Projector Reviews
The last couple of years have seen a proliferation of new displays focused on high output. It used to be an expensive proposition to install a projector capable of 100fL or more but now, you can get 165fL for just $749. How? Fire up the BenQ MU686, make some popcorn and settle in for movie night.
It doesn’t quite qualify as a portable but it is fairly small and light and can be set up quickly and easily on a coffee table or hung from the ceiling if you want a permanent installation. A single-chip DLP light engine ensures bright consistent images and BenQ is always dedicated to color accuracy. Like its stablemates, the MU686 delivers decent color out of the box. You also get 3D support and a wireless HDMI option. If you don’t have a sound system available, you can hear content through two built-in speakers. And should you need it for a computer-based presentation, it provides 1900×1200 pixels, a VGA port and even a laser pointer built into the remote. It sure looks like an awful lot of projector for an awfully low price! Let’s take a look.
BenQ’s entire line of projectors is based on the DLP light engine. The MU686 delivers amazing brightness from a single imaging chip and a 240-watt bulb. The lens is fixed a little off-center and provides mechanical focus and zoom adjustments via the barrel. Picture offset is 100-percent which means you’ll need to aim it right at the bottom or top edge of the screen. You can install it on the ceiling and simply flip the image in the menu.
Generous ventilation is provided on both sides of the projector. Despite the fan’s proximity to the grill, it’s very quiet, even in the bulb’s brightest mode. Here you can also see the adjustable feet. The single front foot can be extended if needed. Auto-keystone will kick in to square the picture at any angle that isn’t perfectly level. I recommend avoiding this since it reduces resolution. The two rear feet are independently adjustable. For such open-looking grillwork, there is very little light leakage. A small amount can be seen around the fan and also at the barrel adjusters above the lens.
Up top, you get enough controls to set up and operate the MU686 without the remote. There’s also an IR receiver which complements the one up front. I never noticed a moment’s hesitation when using the remote; response is instantaneous. You can also see the zoom and focus adjusters. They interact so you’ll have to engage in a little back-and-forth to get the image sharp and sized properly.
The MU686 reveals its business roots with a well-stocked input panel. There is a single HDMI port along with VGA in & out, composite and S-video. Audio is supported by 3.5mm in/out jacks. To integrate the projector into an automation system, an RS-232 connector is provided.
You may have noticed the spec table above lists two HDMI ports. If you’re wondering where the second one is, it’s hiding under a small cover secured by a screw. This is where you install BenQ’s QCast dongle. Once connected, it provides wireless service from mobile devices with HDMI transmission capability. Hiding the dongle like this is pretty slick in my opinion. And if one doesn’t need wireless HDMI, it keeps the projector’s price down. The dongle retails for $59.
The remote comes in the form of a small handset and is not backlit. Like all BenQ handsets, it’s extremely well-made with a solid feel and keys that click positively and responsively. Aside from menu navigation and source selection, it has a set of transport buttons that work with HDMI-CEC-enabled components. It also includes a laser pointer which is handy for indicating things on the screen during presentations. It’s also fun to watch your Chihuahua chase the little red dot around the floor! Don’t ask how I know.
For fans of 3D movies, the MU686 supports frame-packed, side-by-side and top/bottom formats. Glasses are synced via DLP Link. You can purchase them from BenQ or use an aftermarket pair like I did. Mine are made by Xpand.
If you’ve used other BenQ projectors, the MU686’s setup menu will be instantly familiar. Image options are all contained in a single sub-menu and you get a full set with one exception, there is no gamma control. I was initially nervous to see this omission but once I’d run a few tests, I discovered this projector tracks 2.2 with military precision.
There are four picture presets plus a 3D-specific mode and two User memories. Presentation is the default and works fine for, well, presentations. But for home use, I recommend Cinema. You can select it and enjoy content without further tweaking if you wish. It provides decent color, perfect gamma and full detail from AV sources like Blu-ray, DVRs and streaming devices. The HDMI port is also MHL-compatible so you can easily mirror content from a smartphone or tablet.
For any tweakers in the audience (pause while I raise my hand), there is a two-point grayscale adjustment and a full color management system. Calibrating these in the Cinema mode produces the best possible image from the MU686 though I had to do a couple of unorthodox things to get the absolute best result.
After my usual adjustments, I noticed a few saturation levels were off-target and some detail looked clipped. So I dropped the contrast slider from 0 to -27. This reduced sequential contrast but I was able to regain what I’d lost by engaging the SmartEco bulb mode. It acts like an auto-iris varying brightness according to content. It doesn’t clip detail and you won’t see any pumping artifacts while it operates. I’ll explain all this further in the benchmark section below.
If you plan to leave the lights on, select the MU686’s Bright mode. It spits out over 165fL which may be enough to burn a hole in the wall if you leave it on too long. (No, not really.) The color temp here is decidedly green but you can calibrate it with the RGB sliders or select the Cool preset for grayscale that’s pretty close to D65.
The projector can be easily installed in front of the viewer and if you plan to project on a wall, there are five compensations for color including, gulp, pink! Fortunately, I have a lovely and very-white Stewart screen so I left that particular feature off.
High-output projectors like the MU686 can sometimes look a bit too harsh in completely-dark environments like my reference theater, but here, I’ve managed to dial in a more reasonable output level of 55fL. I realize that’s well above SMPTE specs but since color and gamma are well-balanced, it’s not quite as bright as it sounds. I was able to spend multiple afternoons watching movies without any fatigue.
Lights Out is loaded with dark scenes rich in shadow detail. Some DLP projectors can exhibit dithering in films like this. The effect is one of extreme grain that crawls and obscures subtler shades of color. Luckily the MU686 had no trouble at all with this Blu-ray. While film grain was clearly visible, it never distracted nor did it prevent the full rendering of every subtle nuance intended by the film-makers. Though this projector isn’t capable of super-deep blacks, its fantastic intra-image contrast means highlights are super-sharp and therefore, perceived contrast is increased. I was also struck by the natural color palette and precise detail shown in facial close-ups. Objects with fine textures like stone and wood just popped with a terrific sense of realism.
Lucy is an action tour de force of action with lots of intense battle scenes and a few elements doubtlessly inspired by The Matrix. I appreciate director Luc Besson’s use of natural color and high contrast. There is no stylized palette here to muddy up the razor-sharp detail and a dynamic range that could be mistaken for HDR. No film grain is visible which only enhances the feeling of depth. You could almost reach out and touch every object on the screen whether part of a bright outdoor scene or a nighttime sequence lit only by the glow of neon signs. Fast action retains its high resolution thanks to DLP’s superior blur-free motion processing. The MU686 gives nothing away to more expensive home-theater-specific projectors I’ve reviewed.
The Hobbit, the Battle of the Five Armies is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve seen of late. Peter Jackson has opted for an almost painting-like texture that can be difficult for some displays to get right. Parts of many scenes are softly focused while central objects are rendered with more clarity. This challenging material might be a recipe for muddiness but the MU686 shone once again. I had no complaints about anything I saw, dark or bright. Colors are intentionally muted down to a cold monochrome but when warm hues are called for, I could see them clearly.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is one of the first 3D Blu-rays I added to my library. As an older release, it sometimes causes handshake problems where it can’t properly kick a display into 3D mode. BenQ obviously has its firmware act together because I encountered no issues. The MU686 switches smoothly between formats with only a brief delay. The image looked fantastic with plenty of depth and brightness. At 11fL peak, it out-performs almost every 3D projector I’ve reviewed to-date. As a CGI-animated film, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs doesn’t present a processing challenge but I have seen it ghost on other HDTVs and projectors. The MU686’s low .08% crosstalk number means that won’t be a problem here.
Star Trek Into Darkness is obviously a 2D conversion; not originally filmed in 3D. It doesn’t show a lot of depth even on the best displays but the effect is pretty good during the sequence when Kirk and Kahn fly between starships. There is lots of floating debris for our heroes to avoid and it all flies right into the viewer’s face as they streak by. The high intra-image contrast provided an exciting scene where I even felt the need to duck on occasion. Fun stuff!
All grayscale, gamma and chroma readings are taken from the projector’s lens using an X-Rite i1Pro with the diffuser attachment. Contrast tests are performed with a Spectracal C6 tri-stimulus meter pointed at the center of the screen from 12 feet away. This method provides an accurate picture of the contrast performance seen in a typical viewing environment.
My reference screen is a Stewart Filmscreen LuminEsse fixed-frame system configured with StudioTek 130 material. It has a gain of 1.3 and measures 92 inches diagonally. Patterns come from an Accupel DVG-5000 signal generator and the whole procedure is controlled by CalMAN version 5. Color standards are Rec.709 and Rec.2020, both with a white point of 6500 Kelvins. Gamma is compared to the BT.1886 spec or the 2.2 power function where appropriate.
As shipped, the MU686 is set to its Presentation mode. This is fine for Powerpoint and other enterprise type applications but for home theater use, you’ll want to switch to Cinema. That’s where I started my measurements.
You’ll notice that I have three sets of results for this review. That’s because I made a unique discovery as I performed the calibration that bears a little extra explanation. Read on to see what I mean.
This is a good chart and shows that the MU686 doesn’t cry out for calibration. At $749, it’s doubtful many users will spend the money to hire a pro. But if you have the gear available, there is some extra performance to be gained. Errors here are pretty low and only visible starting at the 70-percent level. Gamma tracks perfectly which is a good thing since there are no adjustments available for it. My only nitpick is you are locked into the 2.2 value; not a big deal at all.
After adjustments to the two-point white balance controls and some changes to the color management system, errors are now well below the visible point. Gamma still tracks nearly perfectly. The tiny dip and spike in the chart cannot be seen by the naked eye. It doesn’t get much better than this. So why is there another result below? The answer will come when we get to the color gamut tests.
After the initial calibration, I wasn’t satisfied with the color saturation tracking or color luminance. To compensate, I lowered the Contrast slider from 0 to -27. This may seem drastic but it has a noticeable effect on image quality. It barely affects the grayscale or gamma tracking which is a good thing.
As stated above, there is a little more to calibrating the MU686 than most other projectors I’ve reviewed. First up is the default color measurement.
The default color chart makes a fair case for calibration. The only primary that hits its saturation targets is blue. All other colors are a bit under-saturated and luminance is too low. This results in a visibly drab look that can’t be helped by the MU686’s inherently good contrast. It would be great to have an overall color saturation slider available but it’s grayed out for RGB signals. Fortunately, there is a CMS available that can get us closer to the mark.
After my initial calibration, things have improved somewhat on both the CIE and luminance charts. By getting the white point right on D65, the secondary color hues are now pretty well lined up. But saturation tracking still isn’t to my liking. To get luminance levels up, I maxed every gain slider in the CMS but still came up short. Since gamma tracking is spot on, there is only one explanation left – clipping. By checking a color PLUGE pattern, I could see the primaries clipping significantly. This explains the over-saturated points inside the triangle. My solution was to lower the Contrast control.
It would appear that this is the answer. Dropping the Contrast slider to -27 has improved color saturation tracking, raised luminance levels and reduced the average error to 5.3633dE. For a $749 projector, I’m satisfied. If you’re wondering how to compensate for the reduced contrast, it’s simple; just engage the SmartEco bulb mode. It works like a dynamic contrast control but doesn’t pump brightness like an auto-iris would. It recaptures the contrast lost to my other adjustments and then some.
After calibration in the Cinema mode with the bulb on SmartEco and Contrast set to -27, I recorded a peak white level of 55.1486fL, a black level of .0252 and a contrast ratio of 2189.3:1. This is slightly higher than the MU686’s native ratio of 2028.1:1 I measured in the bulb’s Economic mode.
For maximum output, choose the Bright mode, Normal bulb setting. That provides a searing peak of 165.2681fL, a black level of .0642fL and a contrast ratio of 2574.4:1
3D mode offers good brightness at a white level of 11.6412fL, a black level of .0222fL and a contrast of 525.5:1.
The 3D crosstalk revealed a super-low .08% result. This should prevent any visible ghosting in properly-mastered content. Paired with its high brightness, users should enjoy better-than-average 3D image quality from the MU686.
Many business projectors don’t pass above white or below black signals but the MU686 takes a single exception to that. RGB formats will show the above-white steps if you lower the contrast control sufficiently to prevent clipping. Resolution patterns all look solid except in the 4:2:2 test which exhibited roll-off in the one-pixel burst. Interlaced signals are processed properly in film mode but not in the 2:2 video cadence which failed to lock on. 24p looks nice and smooth and jaggies are handled well too.
THE BENQ MU686 Out-performs its Extremely Attractive Price-tag. It Offers Great Output, Accurate Color and a Sharp Image for Less Than $750.
- Super-high output
- Good out-of-box accuracy
- Sharp image
- Excellent 3D
- Quiet operation
- Solid build quality
- Unbeatable price/performance ratio
- Backlit remote
- Additional gamma presets
For $749, it’s hard to fault the MU686 in any area. It clearly out-performs its price-tag and holds its own against many more-expensive projectors. That it does this while providing as much as 165fL peak output makes it even more impressive.
Performance-wise, it’s far better than other business-focused projectors I’ve seen. It succeeds in delivering good color accuracy and doesn’t require adjustment for an eminently-watchable picture. But if you have the means to calibrate, there is a little more quality available. I’d have loved a couple of extra gamma presets, perhaps one that hit BT.1886. The projector has more than enough intra-image contrast to support this slightly darker presentation. Then it might display even more depth.
I began this review by asking why one would install a business projector in their home. Given what I’ve learned about the MU686, the answer is clear. The lines between business and home theater displays have been blurred. There’s no reason why any projector can’t provide accurate color, grayscale and gamma performance while supporting proper video processing for content from both computer and AV sources. All you need for the business side is a good variety of inputs and a laser pointer. And BenQ’s inclusion of wireless HDMI is a nice bonus.
It seems that the MU686 checks all the right boxes at a super-attractive price. While some enthusiasts might gravitate to more-expensive home theater models, those who want add a projector to their already well-equipped media room without spending a lot would be wise to check this one out. Highly recommended.